Monday, October 15, 2007

Ursula K LeGuin, Cory Doctorow, and Copyright

I have been wondering for some time now just how long the SF/Fantasy community will allow themselves to be swindled by Cory Doctorow's attempts to undermine copyright protections for writers. He's been incredibly crafty in his arguments. He has adeptly, and accurately, demonstrated how corporations often claim the copyright instead of the authors who created a product, but he uses this to shift the issue away from "creator ownership" issue into an "us vs. the corporate overlords" argument. Doing so he simultaneously points out a genuine injustice while misdirecting our ire toward the concept of copyright, which in fact protects creators (at least when corporate overlords don't hijack the rights). He has also pointed out that SF/Fantasy fans tend to both download and purchase hard copies of the things they like. In essence, the SF/Fantasy fan steals a peek, then buys the product, thus doing no "real" damage to the right holder.

I have never found Mr. Doctorow's arguments, and he has others, all that convincing. They seem to be overly concerned with "audience" rights and not with creator rights, which are necessary if people want to be able to make a living from this stuff. Certainly, there is some pretty wacky copyright legislation out there (lifetime plus how many years?), but that doesn't mean that the creator of a product doesn't have the right to profit from his or her creation. They should, and do, and current laws protect such rights.

In the past, the majority of the people I've read who seem to have any agreement with me have been corporate shills, and I don't want to just hang out with corporate shills -- or just them and Harlan Ellison (registered trademark) for that matter. So you can imagine my joy at finding that Ursula K. LeGuin also finds Mr. Doctorow's crusade a little too aggressive. It appears that Mr. Doctorow printed "in its entirety, a one-paragraph story that Ms Le Guin sent to the fanzine Ansible." LeGuin took issue and Mr. Doctorow eventually took action and apologized. You can read the original story at LeGuin's website.

LeGuin has accepted Mr. Doctorow's apology, but I'd like you to look at a couple of key phrases in Doctorow's apology which hint that he is also practicing more than a little self-righteous self-justification.

Andrew Burt, the person whom Ms Le Guin chose to communicate the matter to me, is someone with whom I had put in a killfile following an altercation. I delete all emails from him unread, and if he sent me a message, I did not see it.


Unless Andrew Burt (you can read a copy of a letter he wrote Jerry Pournelle here) and Mr. Doctorow engaged in a serious brawl, it seems a bit petty for Mr. Doctorow to have put his emails in a "killfile." I don't believe that Judd Apatow put Mark Brazill in his killfile, even after being told to "Get cancer." But I don't know the nature of the "altercation," I just know that Mr. Doctorow has used a word which has some heavy implications. Though given his frequent use of rhetorical techniques which might make Gorgias blush, I think it might be little more than a heated email/comment section/message board flame war.

In fact, it seems that Burt's major sin (according to the Doctorow piece) is that Burt believes in copyright protection, "Burt is the Science Fiction Writers of America VP who had previously sent a fraudulent takedown notice that resulted in my novel being removed from an Internet document server." So Burt tries to protect Doctorow's copyright, making an error that forces a takedown notice, something LeGuin describes as "An overworked committee mistakenly identified a few works, among many, as infringing copyright; the mistakes were promptly admitted and redressed, with apologies." That appears to be our "altercation." Which makes me think that Mr. Doctorow is a bit like Mark Brazill in all of this, even his apology seems snide and canned. This is implied by his assertion that, "My understanding is that she is unsatisfied and remains upset with me." When LeGuin is on the record as writing, "It may be a bit clouded with arguments and self-justification, but apologising is hard, and apologies are rare and valuable. I accept his in all good faith." Who seems to be the one most in need of justification here?

As for me, I agree with LeGuin's hope that, "In my view, the best thing that could come out of my brush with the Doctorow Doctrine would be this: the honorable reinstatement of the SFWA e-piracy committee, with an expression of appreciation from SFWA officers and members of the honest and effective work they have done for us for so long."
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